January 31, 2008


Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht: The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Audra McDonald (Jenny Smith); Patti LuPone (Leocadia Begbick); Anthony Dean Griffey (Jimmy McIntyre); Robert Wörle (Fatty the Bookkeeper); Donnie Ray Albert (Trinity Moses); Mel Ulrich (Bank Account Bill); Steven Humes (Alaska Wolf Joe); Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by James Conlon. EuroArts. $29.99 (DVD).

      There is no way to create a perfect Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, since the work itself is so deeply imperfect. Dark, dour and almost entirely emotionless, lacking sympathetic characters and with few memorable tunes, it gains its power from the blatancy of its kick-or-be-kicked worldview and its unremitting attack on the excesses of capitalism. It is inevitably compared, to its detriment, with The Threepenny Opera, written at almost exactly the same time during Germany’s Weimar Republic: parts of Mahagonny predate Threepenny and parts postdate it.

      But Mahagonny does have power and a kind of surrealistic charm, and the Los Angeles Opera has put together about as effective a version of it as audiences are likely to see for some time. The key here is the realization that Brecht/Weill theater is neither opera nor musical show, but something in between – and to cast Mahagonny accordingly. Thus, musical stars (and Tony Award winners) Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone handle the primary female roles, while opera singers Anthony Dean Griffey, Robert Wörle and Donnie Ray Albert sing the principal male parts. This works splendidly, not only because the performers are so good but also because their vocal qualities are so different. They don’t quite fit together – and that is exactly right in a performance of Mahagonny.

      The work is presented essentially intact, and many potentially awkward elements of the presentation – such as a voice (Jamieson K. Price’s) announcing the opening of most scenes – flow quite smoothly indeed. The time scheme of the production is exceedingly clever, starting more or less in the 1920s and moving ahead until, at the end, we are in a modern Las Vegas-style setting, where credit cards have replaced cash and where the final placards called for in the libretto are not carried but are displayed above the stage as digital signboards. There are some misfirings – for example, the emphasis on Mahagonny’s flag (a rag in the broken-down truck seen at the beginning) works well, until there is suddenly a folded American flag jarringly used as a major prop at the work’s end. But by and large, the staging is excellent.

      So is the singing. In the role of the prostitute, Jenny Smith, created by Lotte Lenya (who was herself a prostitute before she became Weill’s wife), Audra McDonald is wonderfully sly, active and determined, and looks great in costumes that leave little to the imagination. Her voice is perhaps a shade too smooth for this role, but she uses it (and her body) so well that she becomes the work’s focus whenever she is on stage. The English translation of Brecht’s libretto by Michael Feingold is only so-so, missing out on some of the original’s bitter intensity, and some intentional oddities of Mahagonny are inevitably lost in any English-language production – notably Jenny’s “Alabama Song,” deliberately written in pidgin English to stick out in what is otherwise a German libretto. But McDonald’s way with this song and with her paean to self-reliance (that’s the “kick or be kicked” number) simply bubbles over with cynicism.

      Her naïve foil is Anthony Dean Griffey as Jimmy McIntyre (changed for some inexplicable reason from Jim Mahoney in the original). Griffey inhabits this part fully and is nearly ideal, in both looks and voice, as a man in far over his head in a world where only money matters – and where, fatally, he runs out of it. He is excellent in the one genuinely emotional number in the entire two hours, in which he implores the sun not to rise.

      Patti LuPone as the “widow Begbick” makes a perfect schemer, whether plotting to found Mahagonny in the first place or pronouncing sentence as its chief judge. Her two cohorts in venality, Robert Wörle and especially Donnie Ray Albert, have very strong voices and fine acting ability as well. James Conlon conducts without a trace of sentimentality – there is none in Mahagonny – and with strong emphasis on the score’s angular rhythms and music-hall vulgarity. It’s never exactly a pleasure to see or hear Mahagonny – it’s both unremittingly dark and packed with abrupt mood changes that cause it to lurch back and forth unsettlingly. And the idea that capitalism does evil things by caring only about money, not about people, is both banal and obvious (and was even when the work was written). Still, Mahagonny has power; and, when it is as well sung and presented as it is here, it makes for a splendid stage presentation that pulls you in intellectually even if it never fully engages you emotionally.

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